This was drafted (but not posted) in 2012, shortly after I returned to the U.S. after six years Taiwan and China.
One of my co-workers remarked that without even looking up he knows it’s me walking across our big office because he recognizes my shuffle. Before I could even explain myself, he told me he figured it was from my time in Asia. Something about the way I walk makes him think of a Japanese geisha or a Chinese woman with bound feet, he said.
I knew what he was talking about. It’s a walk that I became so familiar with in Taiwan/China that I didn’t even realize I had adopted and exported it. It’s the walk of a much daintier woman who is afraid to own her personal space. It’s the shuffle of a bullied girl who is trying to disappear, or the handicapped stride of a woman running in high heels. It’s Nathan Lane’s Albert from The Bird Cage. It’s a Spice Girl. It’s affected.
(Once a Chinese woman in Shanghai was getting on my nerves because she jogged, but kind of stomped her feet, whenever she needed to move across the office. I turned to another Chinese co-worker with a clenched jaw and asked her if she’d noticed how annoying and loud it was every time So-and-so ran across the office. “I think she’s trying to be cute,” she said. And she was: It was supposed to be a dainty, girly traipse, but she was slamming her feet down and not landing on her toes.)
Then there’s also the way I eat. I make Chinese food* for J. As we are eating with our chopsticks, I realize I am shoveling rice and pork into my open maw from the bowl I am holding up to my mouth. His bowl sits on the table and he eats a one bite at a time. He can feed himself with chopsticks, but not as efficiently as me because I am not picking up up my food, I am sweeping it into my mouth. He doesn’t say anything, but I put my bowl down on the table and try to eat Chinese food like a Westerner, without too much enthusiasm, without anything that looks like desperation.
The worst has been the way I can’t remember not to be opportunistic in crowds. There’s so much respect for personal space in the U.S., but I can’t suppress the instinct that I developed after years of trying to get anywhere in Asia. I dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge down the cereal aisle. “Whoa,” says J. I’m so embarrassed, but there’s no good way to explain to someone that there’s no other way to get through a crowded grocery store in Taiwan. I’ve perfected these skills over six years and now they are useless.
You can predict some of the things you will miss about a place when you leave after spending a meaningful amount of time there, but it’s harder to predict the ways you might change. I grew up in Taiwan–I was there from the time I was 23 until I turned 28, and then I spent another year, another birthday in Shanghai. (Also I went to high school in Hong Kong.) I knew that I learned a lot about live and love, figured out that I didn’t want to teach, etc. I didn’t know that I had absorbed different ways of taking up and using my space. I couldn’t have realized that until I got back “home”, and actually it’s been hard for me to break these relatively new habits.
It’s interesting, though, to think about the different ways people take up and use their personal space, and why culture and population might have an impact on how our relationship to our space is structured.
*My Chinese food was never very good, but I was “homesick.” And at the time, I had no plans of returning to Taiwan to live. I was doing what I could.